When I make a work, I often take it to the very edge of its collapse. — Andy Goldsworthy
Churches are fragile things. Not the buildings, of course. We build those out of sturdy material. Heavy stone and thick timber beams. Glass and metal. Church buildings stand for years after their congregations have fallen apart, or faded away. The gathered people, holding themselves together by a common story — we are the fragile part. I have always sensed this is true, but as a pastor, I am learning it from hands-on work.
The sculptor/artist Andy Goldsworthy talks about his own work, and the importance of failure. Goldsworthy has become famous for his temporal natural creations, where he uses leaves, sticks, ice and stone to build organic and ordered sculptures. In a recent interview, he discussed a piece still in process, a stone wall he is building inside the rotten trunk of a tree. The wall will reach around nine feet if he can complete the project. But he is not sure he will ever finish. He says:
“It might be that I never succeed. … This particular piece [a tree stump with a stone wall inside] — it has fallen down now three times: three days, three collapses. The actual act of collapse and the attempt is becoming interesting enough to become the work. I may have bitten off something I cannot make here. I don’t know if I will be able to achieve what I want to; or I will, with a huge amount of luck and chance. But if I don’t, I think the act of building and rebuilding, collapse, could become the work.”
This is the art of the collapse. The rocks have a visual strength the higher he builds the wall. But paradoxically, the structure becomes weaker the larger it becomes. The pressure from the weight threatens the integrity, and the piece keeps collapsing. But Goldsworthy does not build it so that it falls. Wishing for its failure is antithetical to his work. The collapse hurts every time. But it also teaches him for the next time. Some stones don’t make it in the next attempt. Others move from the bottom to the top. He is listening to the rocks and tree, learning lessons only available to the one who continues in the face of continued failure.
The analogies are many, as with any great art. But let’s stop and consider the lessons for us in church. How many times do we start to build on a dream, only to have in fall in on itself? It hurts; it feels personal. After enough failures and collapses, it is tempting to think that the whole endeavor is doomed. So we might stop building. We assume that the collapse entails too much loss to justify the risk. And if collapse is likely, we might not ever pick up the first stone.
There is nothing safe about our work. Loss, often violent loss, is part of the process. But if we pay attention, it can be a teacher. The art of the collapse will reveal lessons hidden from those who sit safely on the side and never try. But we have to be willing to admit the failure, let it in, and feel its pain and loss. Goldsworthy says “Failure is really, really important, but failures have to hurt. … And if I start making this work with the intention of it collapsing, then I’ve lost that intensity of the will for it to succeed, which makes the failure that much more poignant and significant.”
So much of the time, church leaders hide the collapse from themselves and their people. Failure is too embarrassing to admit. Which means that its lessons are never learned, lost to the facade of perfection and half-truths about progress. Sometimes the right thing to do as a leader is to sit on the ground next to the rubble, hands in your hair, and feel the sadness of the collapse. Then remind yourself and your people that there is still work to do. The work is not yet finished. And like a fool you have to pick up the stones and start again.
How many times did Jesus collapse on the way to the top of that hill, only to collapse into hell itself? But that work was just getting started, too.